Hall of Fame basketball coach Chuck Daly died from pancreatic cancer last Saturday. As a native Michigander, I remembered Daly as the coach of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons teams that won back-to-back NBA championships right before Michael Jordan decided to become unstoppable. On Saturday, the day Daly died, I was doing a ton of absolutely mindless work, so I had ESPN on in the background all day as analysts, coaches, and players paid tribute to the departed icon.
As part of its Daly coverage, ESPN repeatedly aired an interview with Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard and the leader of those Pistons teams. I was struck by how sincere, gracious, and articulate Thomas sounded--a far cry from his image of late. I can't think of a former basketball player who has had a more tumultuous post-NBA career than Thomas. He's been found liable for sexual harrassment, bizarrely overdosed on sleeping pills, and has been blamed for torpedoing the Toronto Raptors, the Continental Basketball Association, the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks. Most recently, after being hired as the head coch of Florida International University, he immediately started a controversy by rescinding scholarship offers to several high school seniors.
It's been hard for me to watch Isiah's fall from grace. As a rabid, basketball-obsessed elementary school student, I absolutely idolized the man. I had every book ever written about him. I read his autobiography dozens of times, and I can still recount the details of his rags-to-riches stories about growing up in the worst neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. At recess every day, I would play basketball and pretend I was Isiah Thomas. I dressed up as Isiah Thomas for Halloween for three years in a row. When we made puppets in art class, I made an Isiah Thomas puppet. I literally cried when he was snubbed from the Dream Team. For me, Isiah could do no wrong, so watching the Isiah Thomas circus these past few years has been particularly painful. It's been like finding out there's no Santa Claus. Or, more precisely, it's been like finding out that the guy who dressed up as Santa suit at the mall is a drunk temp worker--and then learning that drunk temp worker also abuses prescription drugs, engages in weird sexual harrassment conspiracies with Stephon Marbury, and thinks it's a good idea to spend all his hard-earned money (from the Santa gig) signing a fat Vin Baker to a huge contract.
But let me make this clear: while Isiah was playing with the Pistons--despite some of his on-the-court antics--he was the best role model a kid could have. For three straight years, when I was in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, I went to his basketball camp in Detroit. Most NBA players lend their name to a camp, show up one day to give a talk, and pocket their ten grand in camp fees. Isiah's camp was different. First off, half the kids there were kids from Detroit who were on scholarship, so it was one of the only camps where suburban kids like me actually played against kids from Detroit who couldn't afford to shell out $400 (in '92 dollars!) for a week of basketball camp. Second, Isiah spend every minute of every day working his own camp, wandering around the camp, watching random kids' games, and giving friendly encouragement and coaching to his players. To this day, I don't think I've ever felt the sheer euphoria that I felt when, as a fourth grade camper, my idol Isiah Thomas actually sat down and watched my camp team play a game of basketball. I think I was too nervous to even attempt a shot, but that's beside the point.
And when Isiah talked, boy, did we listen. Every camp session, he gave a lecture in which he devoted at least five minutes to describing friends' lives that were ruined by drug abuse. Say what you want about anti-drug messaging, but whenever Isiah talked, I steeled my elementary school mind never to use drugs--and I really never did. Even my parents--academic classical musicians who were profoundly suspicious of "the basket ball"--showed up to Isiah's lectures every year, and loved his focus on hard work and putting school first. And these pep talks really meant something to me. Throughout my childhood, whenever I had a setback, I'd tell myself "Isiah worked through it. So can I." This all sounds incredibly cheesy, but that's how kids' brains are often wired.
Hearing Isiah speak so eloquently about Chuck Daly last Saturday brought back a rush of memories about the central role Isiah played in my childhood. I'm not defending Isiah Thomas or to pretending that he is some kind of a saint--it's now common knowledge that he is a deeply flawed man. But he is a deeply flawed man who made a positive difference in my own life, and, I'm sure, in the lives of countless other kids as well. And when it comes down to it, I'd say that making a positive impact on kids' lives is far more important than, say, hurting Larry Brown's feelings, or ineffectively utilizing Reggie Miller. You never know what's going to stick with a kid, or how the words, deeds, or experiences you impart to them can end up shaping who they are as human beings.
That's why a poster of Isiah Thomas still hangs over my old bed in my parents' home. That's why I will always remember him fondly. And that's why I know that anybody--no matter what other issues or flaws they may have--can make a world of a difference by sharing the positive traits and gifts they do have with kids.